States Ahead of EPA in Cutting Mercury Pollution


With the Bush administration under fire for pushing weak mercury pollution standards, several states are striking out to clean their own skies of toxic mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants and other sources.

State legislators in the Midwest and Great Lakes region plan to announce Wednesday, February 4, a new regional effort to reduce mercury pollution. This is the first joint effort to curb mercury pollution and the latest salvo by states acting in the absence of federal standards on mercury. It comes on the heels of regulations adopted in the Northeast by Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey that will greatly cut mercury emissions from their power plants over the next five years.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin said that states must arm themselves against mercury pollution because the federal government has failed to take effective action against the toxic element. The lawmakers, all members of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL), are proposing regulations that range from controlling emissions from coal-fired power plants, to banning mercury-containing products such as thermometers and dental fillings.

"Acting regionally, we can send a collective message to Washington that state policymakers are concerned about protecting the environment and the health of our constituents," said Jane Krentz, Midwestern director of NCEL and a former Minnesota state senator.

Seven other states - Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington also are considering proposals this year to impose strict mercury cutbacks by limiting toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants.

Mercury, a nerve-destroying toxin, was identified by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s as one of the most hazardous airborne pollutants in the U.S., particularly to the development of fetuses and children. Coal-burning power plants are the nation's largest source of mercury pollution, sending an estimated 48 tons into the atmosphere annually, but there are no federal limits on such emissions.

Airborne mercury settles into lakes, rivers and oceans, contaminating fish. Fish consumption advisories are in effect in 44 states, and the EPA and Food and Drug Administration recently cautioned pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children nationwide against eating tuna, which has been found to contain unsafe levels of mercury.

The EPA proposed clean-air rules last week that call for a 70 percent cut in mercury emissions by 2018. But air-pollution and health experts argue the Bush administration proposal doesn't go far enough or fast enough to reduce mercury's harmful impact on the environment.

Those in favor of stricter federal emission limits point to Connecticut and New Jersey, where mercury emissions by state law must be cut 90 percent by 2008, and Massachusetts, which is requiring a 90 percent reducation by 2012.

Even the electric industry in those states supported the stricter timetable. In New Jersey - where 10 percent of women of childbearing age have been exposed to unsafe levels of mercury, placing an estimated 10,000 newborns a year at risk for mercury-related illnesses the state's largest utility agreed to work with air pollution regulators to reduce mercury and other toxic pollutants.

"It will be a challenge, but reducing emissions by 90 percent will be feasible and ultimately affordable," said Neil Brown, spokesperson for PSEG Power, owner of New Jersey's and Connecticut's largest coal-burning power plants and one of the largest electric utilities in the nation.

Health officials also raised concern over the Bush administration's proposal to establish a "cap-and-trade" system for mercury emissions, similar to one for acid rain pollutants in which companies buy emissions "credits" from lesser-polluting companies to meet an overall industry target. They argue this could create "hot spots" of mercury contamination around some power plants.

"Cap and trade is not compatible with this section of the Clean Air Act, and it's not consistent morally," Bill O'Sullivan, New Jersey's air quality permitting chief, said. "Power plants shouldn't be trading their toxics. It endangers everybody living near a power plant that buys credits instead of reducing its pollutants."

EPA spokesman John Millet said that the cap and trade system is the most cost-effective approach to achieving mercury reductions, and that, if the rules are finalized, precautions would be taken to address high concentrations of mercury.

"The administration and the EPA leadership have made it clear they favor a cap and trade policy because it's cost effective, it incentivises [sic] innovation and new technologies, and gets fast early reductions because of the incentives to bank credits early," Millet said.

Air pollution officials and environmental groups say that the administration's approach violates the Clean Air Act, which does not permit emissions trading for hazardous pollutants like mercury, and that it is an attempt by the White House to impose President Bush's Clear Skies Initiative, which stalled in Congress last year.

"If the federal government is not going to act to control mercury as a hazardous pollutant as required under the Clean Air Act, then state legislators must step in to protect their constituents," Maryland Delegate Jim Hubbard (D), the chairman of NCEL, said.

Not all state lawmakers will be able to take as much action as they might like. In the Great Lakes region, where mercury is the most prevalent pollutant, legislators in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio said political opposition is too strong to propose strict emission caps on their states' largest mercury polluters coal-fired power plants.

"We've faced a huge loss of manufacturing jobs and we can't put pressure on our industries right now, so we want to take the small steps that we can," said Michigan Rep. Jack Minore (D), who is sponsoring a resolution to condemn the EPA's mercury proposal.

These are the types of mercury-control legislation proposed:

  • The toughest regulations to cap mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants have been introduced in nine states - Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. 
  • Minnesota and Illinois lawmakers propose a mercury-free car law that would prohibit the sale of cars with mercury switches the motion-sensitive devices commonly used in car trunks. 
  • Lawmakers in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin propose legislation banning "non-essential" products containing mercury, including thermometers, thermostats and some electronics; prohibiting the disposal of such products in landfills and incinerators; and requiring the labeling of all approved devices that contain mercury.


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